The End of Nature and the Birth of the Supra-organism


The other night, I saw Bill McKibben speak at Cooper Union. He reviewed his work on climate change beginning with The End of Nature (1989), the first mainstream book on global warming. As he understood the magnitute of the problem, he also realized there was a dearth of collective awareness and a lack of political will to bring about the necessary change. Although he never considered himself an activist, he felt compelled to start an activist organization, 350.org. As part of his talk, he projected images from past 350.org campaigns, all around the world. The pictures revealed the diversity of people who comprehend the necessity for action on climate change, including black veiled women in Yemen, children in Bangladesh, and college students on the low-lying Maldives Islands. He explored the scope of the problem we face, and then presented  350.org’s latest initiative: A national student movement to pressure universities to divest from energy corporations.

The model for this initiative is the successful campaign that pressured schools to divest from South Africa, during apartheid, twenty-five years ago. I remember this movement  from my time in college, although I wasn’t actively involved at the time. At Wesleyan, they set up a shantytown in front of the president’s office – a clever and effective tactic. To supprt the current divestment movement, students may build refugee camps on campus lawns, to show solidarity with the many millions of people already displaced from their homes, and the hundreds of millions facing displacement, due to accelerating climate change. He is a proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience, used tactically. In general, considering the severity of our crisis, he believes that more strident action is necessary.

Tall and professorial, McKibben has mastered the art of synthesizing data. He noted that last year was the warmest in US history – not by some tiny sliver of a percentage of a degree, but by one whole degree. This is very ominous, as climatologists’ study of past epochs of climate change show that, once past a certain tipping point, warming can accelerate rapidly, with as much as an eight degree increase in temperature in one decade. The UN and World Bank now project a four to six degree rise of temperatures in this century – anything beyond two degrees will be catastrophic.

Around the world, temperature now runs a full degree hotter than a century ago. This is already causing extraordinary and catastrophic effects. The oceans are 30% more acidic than they were 40 years ago, because they absorb a large amount of the ten billion tons of excess carbon dioxide we emit each year. Acidity will cause the disintegration of all of the world’s coral reefs in the next 40 years, according to oceanographers. McKibben noted that the climate is 5% wetter now than forty years ago, which is increasing the power of “super storms.” There was three-quarters less ice in the Arctic last summer than forty years ago – in a sense bringing about a change of this magnitude is a tremendous accomplishment on the part of humanity, even though a terrible one.

The divestment campaign is a brilliant strategy to confront the energy corporations. These companies are the most regressive and destructive forces on the planet today, and also the most profitable: Exxon made $45 billion last year, the most money ever made by a company in a single year “in the history of money,” McKibben noted.

Taking this battle to universities could lead to a profound teaching moment. Through the divestment campaign, trustees – at Ivy League universities these include leading investors and hedge fund managers – will be forced to pay attention to the logic of climate activists. Conferences with professors in physics, chemistry, and environmental departments can validate the science and the future projections for the skeptics and uninformed. As McKibben said, many universities – like Columbia in NY – now promote themselves as centers for sustainability, with earth science departments, sustainable design programs, and so on. At the same time, most of them are deeply invested in the very corporations that are driving the planet toward collapse. The most crucial factor will be the young people, and whether they become galvanized in sufficiently large numbers to fight for their future.

What McKibben didn’t discuss is the path toward adaptation – his vision of an alternative future. He has covered this to some extent in his books, Eaarth and Deep Economy, where he looks at the possible scaling up of renewable energy and the transition to localized communities who consume most of their food from neighboring farms. Maintaining his focus on climate change (350 parts per million is the amount of carbon we can have in our atmosphere and maintain a stable climate, according to climate scientists. We currently have 392 ppm), he didn’t discuss the many other dire threats and challenges confronting us, like species extinction or nitrogen pollution, or atmospheric toxins.

I think McKibben is a great writer and a hero. But his message – and that of other leading environmentalists – would be more powerful if it included a transformative vision of the future we will create together. In Eaarth, his vision is of hunkering down to withstand the inevitable assault that is just beginning. The best we can do is to maintain our current society as best we can. He is clearly pessimistic, at this point, that we can do more than preserve some of what we had.

Yet when we review our history, it is obvious that humanity doesn’t stand still – “man is a transitional being,” Nietzsche said. While McKibben is a Sunday school teacher, his rhetoric lacks a truly transcendent perspective – to a certain extent, this makes it more palatable for a subset of the mainstream. Ultimately, though, the environmental movement needs to present a vision of the future – however different, however transformed – that incites and inspires the human imagination.

While environmentalists propose a dissatisfying vision of a future of reduced possibility, of preserving what we can against the natural forces we have unleashed, of downscaling and powering down, prominent technocrats and wealthy financiers remain possessed by a vision of limitless technological and material progress. They argue for the global spread of genetically modified food, for building thousands of nuclear reactors in the next decades, for massive geo-engineering products to forestall climate change like putting sulfur particles in the upper atmosphere to deflect the sun’s rays. According to the visions of Singularity proponents like Ray Kurzweil, within forty years human intelligence will have merged with machines, leading to immortal bodies, and the design of nanobots able to clean the environment and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The dangers of this approach should be familiar from Greek mythology and from many examples in our past. The unintended consequences of past technology have led to the planetary mega-crisis that now threatens our collective future. A century ago, we didn’t know that plastics would end up in every eco-system and cause cancers in our own bodies as they pollute our endocrine system and mimic our hormones. Today we don’t know what genetic engineering may do to our descendants. Technological advances often have negative consequences that we in the First World tend to ignore. For instance, most people don’t realize that the rush to extract the rare metals used in our smart phones and laptops led to genocide, an estimated three million deaths, in West Africa. We are also depleting and in danger of exhausting many of the resources we depend upon for survival.

As we confront accelerating climate change and species extinction, the high-tech visions of Singularity engineers may be revealed as flimsy fantasies. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, one felt lucky to have a few candles and a working flashlight.

Obviously, it is not a question of rejecting technology, but of finding a path forward that allows for our future continuity. This requires redirecting our technical genius toward redesigning our agricultural and industrial systems so they become far more resilient and humane. We need to use our remaining resources scrupulously and efficiently, and implement natural methods like bioremediation to enhance ecological health. We also need to redesign our social and economic systems so they support local cooperation and community building. From corporate globalization, in other words, we need to make a universal shift to regenerative system design.

Over the next decades, the onslaught of climate change and other aspects of our ecological crisis will bring to an end the delusions of our present society, and force humanity to develop a new understanding of our world – to create a new planetary culture. The kind of linear growth and development that The Wall Street Journal and the World Bank still promote is no longer plausible, and will quickly lead to our doom. Without an awakening of consciousness and a radical change of direction for our civilization, it is quite possible that humans will not survive as species on this planet – the present generations may live through a totalizing collapse of the ecosystem and the beginning of our own dreary plunge toward self-extinction.

While we have reached the limits of what we can materially extract, consume, and plunder from the earth, there are many aspects of our being that remain unlimited and infinite – vast areas of qualitative growth that the capitalist and industrial culture of the last few hundreds years has left largely untapped. For instance, there is no limit to the quality of our relationships, the expression of our creativity, or the inner exploration of the many levels of consciousness that we can access through techniques of self-cultivation, such as meditation or shamanism.

As we – individually and collectively – confront our planetary emergency and begin to take responsibility for what our species has unleashed, we will create a new culture based on the exploration of the depth dimensions of our inner being, on the spiritual essence that constitutes our deepest core. Personally, I believe that not just the many liberation movements of the 1960s, but also the mystical and psychedelic revolution of that time, remain an incomplete project. We are the ones who have the right and responsibility to complete what remains undone. “For those without hope, hope has been given to us,” wrote Walter Benjamin.

I believe humanity has unconsciously willed the planetary mega-crisis into being in order to impel our own initiatory death-and-rebirth journey as a species. It is only by pushing ourselves to the edge of the abyss that we will dig down and reach the next level of our conscious life, individually and collectively. This new level or realization of consciousness will be transpersonal, beyond ego-centrism.

The ecological crisis, in other words, is destined to bring about a profound spiritual awakening on the part of humanity as a whole. As we cross this threshold, we will no longer identify with our egos – which doesn’t mean we will lose or forfeit them. We will realize and conceive of ourselves as consciousness or awareness itself – “the one without a second” of Vedanta – wearing the mask of our particular identities. From a collective of separate individual and tribal identities, humanity will realize that we are one – a supra-organism, in symbiosis with the planetary ecology that sustains us.

From this new perspective, we will realize that our existence is neither accidental nor contingent. We have an intrinsic role to play in the functioning of the biosphere, as protectors of the community of life, stewards of the evolutionary process. We will make a transition in our understanding of technology and media, as well. We will realize, as the psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna liked to say, “Culture is our operating system.”

As this global awakening takes place, we will no longer tolerate media that hypnotizes the populace, turning people into ignorant slaves of a destructive corporate regime. We will create media to attain more refined levels of being and awareness – we will program and entrain ourselves to be more conscious, more empathic, more attuned to the rhythms of our planet, more connected to the community of life. We will, at the same time, evaluate our technologies from a systemic and planetary perspective.

In some areas, we may choose to reverse progress and take a different path. As our coastal cities get flooded in the next decades, we will have the opportunity to construct eco-villages and eco-cities – new metropolises designed for communities to cooperate and share resources. Perhaps in some places we will choose to bring back animals, such as horses and elephants, for transport, and do without noisy metal machines? Who knows what new directions will open up for us when we overcome the belief that progress is only a linear path? Radical solutions to the energy crisis may become available, once we set our minds to finding them. For instance, motors can be modified to run on water hydrolysis rather than fuel – the existing fleet of cars could be re-engineered for this.

The end of linear history will be the birth of the pleasure principle as a new social orientation. Once we realize that we really are not going anywhere in the way we once believed – that there is no place up ahead that is better or more fulfilling than the place we are now – we will redesign our social, political, and financial systems to improve our present world, rather than sacrificing vast populations for some imaginary future goal. We will not bring an end to progress, but we will redefine what progress means. As we realize humanity as one, we will choose to share resources equitably. We will construct systems that enhance the lives of everyone on earth, rather than increasing the wealth of the privileged few. We will come to see greed as a cancer or parasite that feeds on the human soul.

As I left the Great Hall at Cooper Union, I was bombarded by activists with various petitions to sign, asking donations for different causes – all of them ultimately related, or really, ultimately the same cause, which is the cause of saving the earth from the assault of industry. In order to do this, humanity must unite to interrupt the delusional momentum of progress and stop the corporate mega-machine that has gone out of control. Today, we confront the same fight everywhere– for example, New York is currently threatened with hydro-fracking, which permanently contaminates precious freshwater reserves to produce a few months supply of natural gas. The insanity of our system is becoming apparent to everyone, whether they admit it or not.

What prevents all of the myriad righteous causes from being integrated into one efficient and beautifully presented initiative – one massive open-source project that evolves through our collective and collaborative effort? It is hard to conceive exactly how this will come about, but I can’t help sense it as a pressing need, and an inevitability. Surely, the technological infrastructure now exists to unify humanity as one – one cooperative organism, much like the trillions of cells in our body that work together seamlessly. As we make the leap to this next level of unity, much that now seems inconceivable will become possible, natural, and – all of a sudden – the way things are done. 

Image by the bridge, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.